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Ancient Egyptian Herbalism

Updated on February 21, 2009
Eye of Ra
Eye of Ra

Ancient Egyptians Used Plants As Medicine

Ancient Egypt was a civilization along the Nile River and delta of northeastern Africa. It thrived for more than 3,000 years, from about 3300 bc to 30 bc, and was the longest-lived civilization of the ancient world. The Nile River originates in East Africa and flows northward through Sudan and Egypt. It branches out to form a broad delta, and empties into the Mediterranean Sea Northwest of Cairo. Because of seasonal rains farther south in Africa, the Nile overflowed its banks in Egypt every year, covering the area with a rich black soil. This natural cycle of flooding enabled ancient Egyptians to develop a successful agricultural economy.


Herbs played a major part in Egyptian medicine. According to the Papyrus

Ebers, an ancient text written in 1500BC, there are plant medicine references to more than 700 herbal remedies and 800 compounds, and is thought to be a copy of the even more ancient Book of Thoth (3000 BC ). Some of the plants mentioned in this text are opium, Cannabis, myrrh, frankincense, fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe, linseed, castor, caraway seeds, Marjoram Leaves, Spearmint Leaves, Basil, Hibiscus, Calendula, Anise seeds, Parsley, Cumin, Licorice Root, Chamomile, & Dill. Cloves of Garlic have been found in Egyptian burial sites, including the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Ancient Egyptians knew how to treat injuries to the brain without injuring the patient, but their understanding of the brain and its functions was superficial; they considered thinking to be a function of the heart.

The most renowned figure of Egyptian healing was Imhotep, who was honored as the first physician known by name and was prime minister to King Zoser of the third Egyptian dynasty. His fame was so great that after his death the Egyptians elevated him to the stature of a god and worshipped him for his healing powers.

The largest medicinal reference was by Hermes (a healer of Greek origin who studied in Egypt), and consisted of six books. The first of these six books was directly related to anatomy, the rest served as a book of physic, and as apothecaries.

Beginning early on with the pharaoh Athothes (the second king of Egypt), the Egyptians are credited with being the first to use and record advanced medical practices. Doctors and other medical personnel kept detailed notes on papyrus, describing the condition and the treatment applied in all areas of medicine, including gynecology, bone surgery and eye complaints.

The dissection of bodies during mummification did not add greatly to their knowledge of the inner workings of the human body, possibly because mummifiers and physicians did not move in the same circles. They had some anatomical knowledge though, and had made the connection between pulse and heart, but did not have any understanding of the circulation of the blood. In fact, they thought all of the bodily fluids circulated throughout the entire body; blood, urine, semen, etc.

Their knowledge of anatomy, as well as the influence of the Greeks and other cultures, led to an extensive knowledge of the functioning of the organs, and branched into many other medical practices. In later dynasties, scholars from ancient Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean came to study the medical practitioners of Ancient Egypt.

Egyptians used many types of plants & herbs, animals (all parts nearly) and mineral compounds (copper salts, plain salt and lead). Eggs, liver, hair, milk, animal horns and fat, honey and wax were also used. Yeast was recognized for its healing qualities and was applied to leg ulcers and swellings, and was also taken internally for digestive disorders and ulcers. Wine was used in embalming as a disinfectant and preservative. Frankincense and date-wine were prescribed as anti- pruritics (for itching), astringents and antiseptics in local applications. They did not have a clear knowledge of cellular biology or of germ theory, so attributing the use of yeast as an antibiotic was not known until well into modern times.

Work of the Gods?
Work of the Gods?

Ancient Egyptians explained illnesses as the work of the gods, caused by the presence of evil spirits or their poisons

They used incantations, prayers to the gods and to Sekhmet, the goddess of healing, curses, and threats.

Some gods and goddesses took part in creation, some brought the flood every year, some offered protection, and some took care of people after they died. Others were either local gods who represented towns, or minor gods who represented plants or animals. The ancient Egyptians believed that it was important to recognize and worship these gods and goddesses so that life continued smoothly.

Certain substances were popular as a universal remedy for all diseases because they were thought to be made by deities. They believed Ra, the Sun God, who in his old age suffered from several diseases, made drugs to cure all men. One of these was composed of honey, wax and a collection of 14 botanical substances mixed together in equal measures. Of this mixture compress that cured all diseases was made. However, even though these remedies were effective, in honor of the deities Egyptian physicians attributed them to the gods.

Gardens were very popular in Egypt.

From an enclosed yard with a few fruit trees to botanical and zoological gardens with exotic trees, ponds, often stocked with fish, and caged animals and birds, gardens are depicted in many tombs.

These gardens were very formal with rectangular ponds and trees and vines planted in straight rows.

Trees and shrubs were grown for shade and for their fruit. (Date and other palm trees, sycamore fig, pomegranate, nut trees and jujube). Willows, acacia and tamarisk were also grown. Flowers such as daisies, cornflowers, mandrakes, roses, irises, myrtle, jasmine, mignonettes, convolvulus, celosia, narcissus, ivy, lychnis, sweet marjoram, henna, bay laurel, small yellow chrysanthemums, and poppies grew among the trees, papyrus and lotus in the pond. Grapes and other vines were often planted.

Pliny writes about an unguent made from cyprinum, which he claims to be an Egyptian tree, the unguent made of elate or spathe, the fruit of the adipsos palm, ladanum, an import from Arabia, the Syrian storax or styrax, a balsam made from Liquidambar orientalis in Asia Minor, turpentine resin, the malobathrum oil, and galbanum, a gum-resin made from Peucedanum galbaniflorum native to Persia.

Garlic Was Used As Medicine

Garlic was an important healing agent then just as it still is to the modern Egyptian and to most of the peoples in the Mediterranean area. Fresh cloves are peeled, mashed and macerated in a mixture of vinegar and water. This can be used to gargle and rinse the mouth to treat sore throats and toothache. Applied as an external liniment or taken internally it is beneficial for bronchial and lung complaints including colds.

Onions helped against problems of the digestive system.

Coriander, C. Sativum, was considered to have cooling, stimulant, carminative and digestive properties. Both the seeds and the plant were used as a spice in cooking to prevent flatulence, and were also taken as a tea for stomach and urinary complaints including cystitis. Coriander leaves were commonly added fresh to spicy foods to calm their effects. It was one of the herbs offered to the gods by the king, and seeds were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen and in other ancient burial sites.

Cumin, Cumin cyminum, is an umbelliferous, (Umbelliferae, parsley family), The seeds were considered to be a stimulant and effective against flatulence. They were often used together with coriander for flavoring. Cumin powder mixed with some wheat flour and a little water was applied to relieve the pain of any aching or arthritic joints. Leaves from many plants, such as willow, sycamore, acacia or the ym-tree, were used in poultices and pastes. Tannic Acid derived from acacia seeds commonly helped for cooling the vessels and heal burns.

Castor oil, figs and dates, were used as laxatives.

Tape worms were dealt with by an infusion of pomegranate root in water, which was strained and drunk. The alkaloids contained in it paralyzed the worms' nervous system, and they relinquished their hold.

Thanks to the medical papyri, we know of many of the ancient Egyptian treatments and prescriptions for diseases. Many of the Ancient Egyptian remedies are still used today in modern day Egypt, as well as other cultures around the world.

Honey and milk were used for the respiratory system as well as throat irritations.

Honey also used as a natural antibiotic to dress wounds.

Aloe Vera was used to treat worms, relieve headaches, soothe chest pains, burns, ulcers and for skin diseases.

Frankincense was used to treat throat infections, stop bleeding,as well as treating asthma. It was also smoked like hashish.

Dill was used for flatulence and for its laxative and diuretic properties.

Caraway was used to treat flatulence and as a breath freshener.

Balsam Apple or Apple of Jerusalem was used as a laxative.

Camphor tree was used to reduce fevers, sooth gums, and treat epilepsy.

Juniper tree was used to treat digestive ailments, sooth chest pains, stomach cramps. Mustard seeds were used to induce vomiting and relieve chest pains.

Parsley was used as a diuretic.

Mint was used to sooth flatulence, aids digestion, stop vomiting, and as a breath freshener.

Sage was used externally to treat sprains, swelling, ulcers, and bleeding. Sandalwood was used to aid digestion, stop diarrhea, and to treat gout.

Sesame was used for asthma.

Poppy seeds were used to relieve insomnia, headaches, and as an anesthetic.

Thyme was also used as a pain reliever.

Early forms of aspirin were actually derived from myrtle leaves, willow bark, and birch bark, which contain a pain-relieving substance called salicin. One of the earliest salicin-based medicines was a myrtle leaf treatment made by ancient Egyptians to soothe back pain in 1500 BC.

Many of the herbs used in ancient Egypt are still used today in herbalism.





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    • profile image

      nathaniel brooks je 20 months ago

      Too the moors/maurs/muurs, I petition the brotherhood foe a sit-down with my favorite restaurant, i try and leave women from the middle east alone i understand where he's comming from they like me for some crazy reason? hbi-hysklar

    • profile image

      fvbervbu 7 years ago

      i hope this is real research im doing a school project

    • katesisco profile image

      katesisco 7 years ago

      There is so much of what we think of as Egyptian history it needs a little perspective: the people we thought of as ancient Egyptians thought of themselves as modern and the ancients as a past so long ago it was an 'artifact' in the modern world. That is our problem when we talk about history, it is all a compression that becomes meaningless.

      For example: the pre Old Kingdom people are the most interesting because they left so little for us to discover as history. After Egypt became a country ruled by men, the first human king Menses, the excesses of all periods that follow bear the same trademarks: war, deification of various gods, development of trade, medicines, a gloss of religious interpreters, the whole lot. So it is pointless to seek 'history' in what became a downhill run in endless war & elevation of gods.

      If one is to talk about 'history' it must by definition mean the human remains that exist under all the remains on top. We can get that far in Egypt only to discover that the pre Old Kingdom people may have come from the West somewhere in the desert near the Atlas Mountains. That is all we think we know. Perhaps they came because of drought or weather change. That seems to be the only thing we can come up with to identify why cultures like the Inca who came after the Wiri who themselves came after who or what made the city by Lake Titicaca and the fabulous Sun Gate who weeps tears.

      If one follows these trails long enough it begins to appear that there was an established global race of sapients that survived some sort of world catastrophe only to begin rebuilding in various spots such as the Stupe Valley outside of Lima Peru, 10,000 yo. Harrappa now documented to over 10,000 yo. The Med Neolithics such as the Cyprus Kohitia Kira. And many others.

      Our current progress consists of resifting and refining theories that have almost no relevance toward connecting the dots.

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      Shumba 7 years ago

      Herms was a nubian proffesor from the Nile Valley who taught the Greeks in Antiquity. He is the same as Thoth to the Egyptians and Qutzalcolt to the the central Americans. To the Hebrews he is known as Enoch the grandson of Adam. To the Sumerians he is known as Enki.

    • chermarie profile image

      chermarie 8 years ago from Wisconsin

      Thank you Motricio..I have seen it both ways. From what I understand, the Eye of Ra is the right eye, and the Eye of Horus is the left. I will research this again & thanks for pointing this out.

    • motricio profile image

      Mauricio Rodriguez 8 years ago from Bogota DC, Colombia

      Good info,

      But you should correct your "Eye of Ra", because ancient history depicts that as "The Eye Of Horus", and your should read more about that before publishing.

    • profile image

      shoba 9 years ago

      Very useful. Thanks.

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 9 years ago from United States

      Very nice and interesting!

    • Nicole Winter profile image

      Nicole A. Winter 9 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Wonderfully informative hub, chermarie! Welcome to Hub Pages, I hope to see more from you, soon!